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Taut an Important Lesson

I was recently awaiting a flight at Laguardia Airport which was scheduled to leave at 2:00. It was 1:45, we had not started boarding, though the plane was at the gate. The board still claimed an on-time departure. At 1:58, the gate agent announced the plane was delayed until 2:45 with no explanation. Ultimately, we departed at 4:30. During the wait, I was able to ascertain that the flight was delayed because the flight attendant crew was stuck in Boston. The plane they were to take to Laguardia was delayed for mechanical issues. It took 2 1/2 hours to fix the plane or get another one.

As I contemplated this story--and I had a lot of time to contemplate it--I realized that Delta built a system that has no slack in it. If anything goes wrong--the pilot is late, the incoming flight is late, the rest of the crew is late--the next plane is late as is the plane after that. Any system that taut is bound to break over and over.

I am no expert in flight schedules, but I do think allowing for some margin of error so customers get to their destinations on time would help the entire system. Somewhere in Boston there ought to have been an extra plane. Somewhere in New York there ought to have been an extra crew. The system needs to be able to function even under stress.

This is equally true for our organizations. It is tempting to hire only enough staff to make the organization work when everything is functioning at peak efficiency. It is certainly cheaper, at least in the short run, as we are keeping payroll down. (I am sure that is Delta’s rationale--keep personnel costs low.) However, two issues arise when an organization has too little slack.

First, as mentioned above, if anything goes wrong, the whole system wobbles. It makes the organization look nonresponsive and fragile. We want our customers to see us as responsive and robust. Such a system also puts undue pressure on employees and does not care for their social and emotional health. (The flight attendant crew sprinting from their delayed Boston flight to my flight were not feeling good about Delta or their jobs at that moment.)

The second downside is less obvious and equally (if not more) important. When everyone is working to their fullest capacities, the room for innovation vanishes. Innovation needs time and space to thrive. The flight attendant crew running from one plane to the next has no time to think about how to improve the situation. They are looking to survive, not improvise. In today’s world, we need innovation. We have to make space to allow it to happen.

The harder question is how much slack to build into a system. Too much slack and the system is inefficient and folks are bored, not enough and the system is too fragile. Perhaps aiming for a place where people who are doing all they can have about 15% in reserve may be a good goal. I wonder if any readers have an idea about this.

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